How Did the United States Really Perform in the United Nations Human Rights Review? By the Numbers, the News is Not Good

An institutionalized, transparent and coordinated approach to human rights monitoring and implementation, that takes into account a human rights-centered macroeconomic and financial policy, is urgently needed.
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By Radhika Balakrishnan and María Herminia Graterol

The United States, so comfortable judging the human rights performance and policies of other countries, had a second review of its own record on May 11th. The status of human rights for all in the U.S. was reviewed by UN Member States at the Human Rights Council (HRC) in a process that is called the "Universal Periodic Review."

The U.S. government submitted an official report that was supplemented by alternative information compiled in stakeholder reports to bring attention to human rights issues that need addressing. This peer review offers one of the last opportunities to pressure the Obama administration to meet international human rights obligations, including those related to the realization of women's rights and economic, social and cultural rights.

Groups from a wide coalition of human rights organizations under the umbrella of the U.S. Human Rights Network observed the review. Our organization, the Center for Women's Global Leadership (CWGL), based at Rutgers University, was also represented in Geneva, hoping to bring attention to women's rights and economic policy. However, the lack of an inter-connected and holistic approach to the realization of human rights for all persons in the U.S. proved to be a stumbling block we had not anticipated. This was because, in this instance, the vast majority of the 117 UN member states that engaged in the dialogue accepted a myopic view of human rights and went along with it.

The U.S. was first reviewed in 2010, just two years after the "Great Recession." At the time, we presented the report, "Towards a Human Rights-Centered Macroeconomic and Financial Policy in the U.S." The detrimental and ongoing effects of the crisis are also part of the context of the current review, but were not part of the content. Despite this omission, relief and recovery programs set in place to remedy human harm caused by the recession are not reaching women, racial minorities and other marginalized groups and may, in fact, be having a negative impact, as stated in the 2014 report, "Towards a Human Rights-Centered Macroeconomic and Financial Policy in the US: Revisited", by the Center for Women's Global Leadership, Rutgers University, the Political Economy Research Institute, University of Massachusetts and partners.

Yet, instead of economic and social rights, the U.S. reported on economic and social measures. Women's rights were limited to freedom from violence. The narrative of successful economic and social policies overshadowed the reality of systematic poverty and discrimination on the basis of gender, class, immigration status, race and ethnicity. We witnessed a process that lowered the bar of international human rights norms and standards so that the U.S. could pass.

Despite the results of the review, we need to bring the discussion back to the real situation of human rights in the U.S. The economic downturn destroyed jobs, reduced standards of living, heightened risks of food insecurity for women-headed households and drove many families into poverty. Women of color and others living in poverty have ended up at the juncture of extreme forms of discrimination on the basis of sex, class, race/ethnicity, immigration status and occupation.

As a result of the crisis, women continue to experience higher rates of poverty and the gender gap increased. The gender poverty gap also increased during the recovery. According to the Center for Women's Global Leadership at the Rutgers School of Arts and Sciences, "women continue to make only 77 cents for every dollar that their equally qualified male counterparts make." Underemployment rates continue to be higher than the average rate in 2007.

Economic policy in the U.S. is not being guided by the principles of non-discrimination, equality, progressive realization and non-retrogression. A human rights analysis of macroeconomic and financial policy shows that structural inequalities and social exclusion of discriminated groups of women in the U.S. must be addressed. Structural inequality is being relegated to racism as a stand-alone issue and in our opinion that is a double-edged sword. The realization of human rights requires an inter-dependent view of rights, that addresses all sites of discrimination (the workplace, the home, the community, the street, etc.) and a holistic view of all our multiple identities.

Since human rights are inter-related, information shared by other NGOs on women's issues point to the need for the ratification of the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). Violence against indigenous women by men outside their communities is still widely underreported. In the U.S., Black women are 35 percent more likely than their white counterparts to be victims of violence and account for nearly a full third of intimate partner homicides. Sexual violence and rape in the United States military is perpetrated at such alarming rates that the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women made detailed recommendations in this regard. Survivors of trafficking in women and girls are still being prosecuted for crimes they were forced to commit. One positive outcome is that most of the UN member states that took an active part in the review recommended the ratification of CEDAW.

The U.S. official Universal Periodic Review report also affirmed CEDAW is a priority. We need this promise to come before the end of the Obama administration and without any reservation. An institutionalized, transparent and coordinated approach to human rights monitoring and implementation, that takes into account a human rights-centered macroeconomic and financial policy, is urgently needed. If we believe in human rights for all, we must pay attention to the actions that will follow this review, without letting economic and social rights fall off the wagon.

Radhika Balakrishnan is the Faculty Director of the Center for Women´s Global Leadership at Rutgers University (CWGL) and a Public Voices Fellow of The OpEd Project. Maria Herminia Graterol is affiliated with CWGL, currently focusing on economic and social rights issues.

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